We are facing a rising tide of climate change denial. This is fed by UK media outlets, which are becoming increasingly influential in politics around the world. That was the stark message at this week's Campaign against Climate Change public meeting on the skeptic backlash.
How we should respond to this was less clear-cut. The difficulty of the issue was shown by the way the speakers - Ben Stewart from Greenpeace, David Adam, the environment correspondent for The Guardian, and George Marshall of the Climate Outreach and Information Network - took different positions even on the importance of climate change denial.
For Ben Stewart, it’s a serious threat to our chances of getting real action on climate change. When he first heard about the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia, which deniers claimed show the scientists deliberately distorting their data on global warming, he thought it had set the cause back two years. If that doesn’t sound serious, bear in mind that if we’re to have a chance of stopping catastrophic climate change, emissions need to peak, not in 10 or 20 years’ time, but in 2015.
For The Guardian's David Adam, by contrast, it appears more a part of the usual media cycle. There have been so many stories about how bad the effects of climate change will be that the idea it’s all a liberal conspiracy has the ring of novelty for hard-pressed news editors. Green fears of climate change denial could, he suggested, be more damaging than the climate change deniers themselves.
There was some sympathy for the ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ position, but we have to separate arguing about the science of climate change from taking on the deniers. It is dangerous to get into arguments about climate science - not because it’s dubious, but precisely because it isn’t. As Phil Thornhill (Campaign Against Climate Change) pointed out, the more we debate the science of climate change, the more that science is seen as debatable.
But this doesn’t mean that climate change denial as a phenomenon is something that we should ignore. The meeting flyers posed the question of where the climate change denial is coming from. The answer from the speakers seemed to be that it was, at least in part, the fault of we climate change campaigners ourselves.
According to Ben Stewart, the fact that we’re right about climate change has made us too complacent. His message was that being right is not enough and that we have to be much more savvy about challenging climate change denial.
George Marshall argued that we haven’t been effective enough at communicating with people outside the green movement. Because we haven’t sold the idea of action on climate change effectively, it’s easier for people to believe that climate change isn’t happening at all.
Marshall overstates the extent to which climate change denial can be seen as a comfortable ‘everything’s all right’ argument. Most manifestations of it seek, after all, to make their readers very alarmed indeed at some sort of-liberal/commie conspiracy plotting to take away their freedom and their SUVs in the name of climate change.
But this wasn’t the main problem with the arguments put at the meeting. The speakers made good points about the need for better communication and for challenging climate change deniers online - where a number of prominent climate denial websites, like those run by Richard North and James Delingpole - have managed to get themselves an audience in the mainstream press that outstrips what most environmental campaigners have been able to achieve. What was missing, however, was a sense of the political dimension of climate change denial.
George Marshall stressed how climate change denial is not an isolated belief, but can be seen as part and parcel of a particular right-wing, neo-liberal viewpoint. It’s not a coincidence that climate change denial in Australia is part of a particular party stance, nor that you can’t now win a US Republican primary if you confess that you think that man-made climate change might actually be happening.
This is all true, but it isn’t only the open deniers in politics who help the tide to rise. In the UK, the only political party campaigning on an open climate change denial platform is UKIP, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a political issue. All the main parties pay lip service to action on climate change, but genuine, effective action is something we are still having to fight for.
This failure to act sends the message that climate change isn’t really as serious as environmentalists say it is. At the same time, government attempts to put the responsibility for action on to individuals (think of those irritating ‘Drive 5 miles less a week’ adverts) reinforce the unfortunate message from some environmentalists that dealing with climate change is all about ordinary people sacrificing.
The mainstream parties’ failure to act on climate change has created the context in which the climate change denial can thrive. The greater prominence of climate change denial also casts the climate policies of the mainstream parties in a much greener light than they would otherwise have, and could make it more difficult for greens concerned about climate denial to point out their flaws.
There was little of this discussion in the meeting, which left it rather less definite in its conclusions than it might have been. It’s true: it isn’t enough to be right about climate change. We need to take the knowledge that we’re right and continue to build the movement, not just against climate change, but against the system which puts the interests of wealthy ex-politicians above those of the working class and the world.
Elaine Graham Leigh is environment editor of Counterfire and a member of Campaign Against Climate Change's steering committee (writing in a personal capacity).
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate Crisis. Her sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.
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